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Review: The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

Directed by: William Friedkin

Premise: When a twelve-year-old girl (Linda Blair) is possessed by a demon, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) turns to a Catholic priest (Jason Miller) for help. He and an older member of the clergy (Max von Sydow) attempt to save the girl by performing an exorcism.

What Works: The Exorcist is a legendary motion picture and its mythical status has as much to do with the reputation and rumors surrounding the movie as it does with the actual content of the film. When it was released in 1973, rumors about strange or supernatural phenomena on the filmmaking set, reports of the deaths of people connected to the movie, and extreme reactions to the film by some audience members conspired to create an entire mythology around The Exorcist that was bigger than the motion picture itself. But setting aside the myth and legacy of The Exorcist (as best as that can be done), the film remains potent viewing fifty years after its release. The Exorcist has a reputation as a shocker and although there are several intense and properly awful moments, much of the movie is quiet with dread gradually cultivating over the course of the story. This is accomplished through some very effective cinematic choices. Most of The Exorcist was shot in a raw, cinema verite style and that realistic look sells the fantastic premise. The naturalism of the movie is supported by the cast and The Exorcist has some great performances. The titular character is Father Karras played by Jason Miller. Hollywood films tend to portray the clergy as inaccessible but Karras is a man first, one suffering a crisis of faith and wracked with guilt and self-doubt. This encounter with evil makes Karras rise to the occasion but Miller doesn’t allow for showy heroism. Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil, the mother of the possessed girl. Burstyn plays Chris as a bewildered parent who just wants to help her sick daughter and that gives the film a lot of credibility. Regan, the possessed girl, is primarily played by Linda Blair with Mercedes McCambridge contributing the demonic voice and Eileen Dietz doubling in some of the stunts. The film takes its time transitioning Regan into her possessed state which is one of the keys to the film’s success. Blair’s early scenes are likable and the banter with her mother is convincing. The possessed Regan is among the most iconic monsters in horror cinema history and that’s a credit to Blair’s fearless performance and the contributions of McCambridge and the makeup effects artists. The visual effects of The Exorcist are also impressive. The demonic makeup is now classic and many other practical effects, like the infamous head rotation, are cleverly executed. The soundtrack is also unusual. The film has few musical cues and instead of a score the soundtrack makes use of effects, percussion, and ambient sound. This is very unsettling and when it is combined with the film’s imagery, the effect puts the viewer on edge. The Exorcist is also a skillfully written and tightly edited film that uses parallelism between the plotlines to draw the characters together and unify the story. Writer William Peter Blatty’s dialogue hits all the right notes, rarely lecturing on principles of good and evil and letting the subtext organically emerge. When the filmmakers do allow for exposition, it’s delivered efficiently and with style. Blatty’s script is informed by a genuine interest and concern with the nature of evil and the most disconcerting aspect of The Exorcist is the way it suggests that evil is alive in the world and that rational methods are ill equipped to deal with it. This film was released during the New Hollywood era, a period of American cinema that was defined by gritty motion pictures whose stories often suggested disillusionment and moral ambiguity and concluded with downbeat endings, reflecting the mentality of a culture that had been traumatized by riots, the assassinations of high-profile political figures, and the imagery of the Vietnam War. The Exorcist springs from that context but ironically the movie is ultimately conservative in its disposition. The Exorcist is really about the recovery of stability and a return to faith and this is conveyed through its two intertwined narratives. The main plotline is of a parent coping with the demonic possession of her daughter, and Chris first appeals to science, allowing Regan to suffer through a battery of tests. Although the possession scenes are tough the medical sequences are some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film and the eventual realization that medicine and psychiatry are unequipped to deal with the reality of evil strikes at the heart of progressive, secular modernity. At the same time, The Exorcist includes a subplot of a young priest who is on the verge of losing his faith and must recover his conviction in order to face evil. When these stories converge in the exorcism ritual, the filmmakers have set up an allegorical confrontation in which the fight to free this young girl of her possession takes on cosmic symbolism of the struggle between good and evil. And, rather incredibly, the filmmakers manage to sell that.

What Doesn’t: The Exorcist is a religious—and specifically Catholic—film in much the same way that The Passion of the Christ and A Christmas Carol are also religious pictures. Appreciating a film (or any other piece of art) is possible without subscribing to the doctrine; a belief in the Christian story is not required to admire the beauty and skill of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. But it is hard, if not impossible, to separate the ideology from the imagery and it can be argued that a full appreciation of The Exorcist requires a belief in Catholic doctrine. In that respect there is another way to understand The Exorcist that is much more troubling. The symptoms of demonic possession as presented in this film are often very sexual and have a lot of parallels to adolescence and puberty. Within that reading of the film, the scientists and medical technicians treat the girl’s burgeoning womanhood as a disease and when it can’t be cured she is turned over to a pair of men to ritualistically dispel it, freezing this young woman in an innocent stage of emotional development. This interpretation of The Exorcist is merited and has serious implications for the meaning of the film. However, latent misogyny is not the filmmakers’ point and this metaphorical reading of The Exorcist is at best an inference. The hearts of the filmmakers and their characters are in the right place and that is what ultimately defines this movie.

DVD extras: The 4K edition includes the original theatrical cut and the extended director’s cut as well as commentary tracks, and an introduction by William Friedkin. The blu-ray edition has additional extras including featurettes, a documentary, interviews, image galleries, radio and TV spots, and trailers.

Bottom Line: The Exorcist is one of the essential horror pictures of American cinema. In the fifty years since its release The Exorcist has become a cultural institution that’s been imitated and parodied ad nauseam. But The Exorcist has retained an ability to get under the viewer’s skin, whatever their religious orientation. Its cinematic craftsmanship, bleak tone, and intellectual seriousness continue to distinguish this movie and make it a unique viewing experience. 

Note: There are two versions of The Exorcist: the original theatrical cut (running 122 minutes) and the extended cut (running 132 minutes), originally referred to as “The Version You’ve Never Seen” and more recently called the “Extended Director’s Cut.” The longer version was created in 2000 largely at the prompting of Exorcist writer and producer William Peter Blatty. Director Willam Friedkin had cut the film down because he was concerned about the pacing and that the movie was overexplaining the ideas. Blatty felt that these scenes provided important context. The biggest additions to the extended cut were Regan’s first visit to the doctor’s office (completely omitted from the theatrical version) and an extended coda sequence that implies police lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer will become friends, which pays off in Exorcist III. Blatty was upset that some viewers came away from The Exorcist thinking that evil won. The extended ending was intended to disabuse viewers of that notion. Also added was the spider walk sequence which could not be done convincingly in 1973 but digital tools allowed the filmmakers to disguise the mechanics of the effect. The extended cut also added subliminal edits of the demon’s face appearing throughout the movie. Either version of The Exorcist is acceptable but the extended cut benefits overall from the added footage.  

Episode: #210 (October 26, 2008); Revised #460 (October 13, 2013); Revised #969 (October 15, 2023)